Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor
by Eamon Duffy
Yale, 280 pages, $28.50

Before the flames consumed him in 1555, Bishop Latimer is said to have turned to his companion at the stake: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.” John Foxe reported that prophetic valediction in the 1570 edition of his Acts and Monuments, the book that canonized as Protestant martyrs those whom Catholic Queen Mary Tudor (1553“1558) had condemned as obstinate heretics. Foxe’s book established English religious and national identity as Protestant and set up criteria of historical judgment for succeeding centuries.

Foxe’s report of Latimer’s last words, alas, has proven apocryphal, a late addition apparently lifted from the story of an early Christian martyr, Saint Polycarp. But Catholic Queen Mary certainly did campaign against heresy by force, presiding over the burning of some 284 Protestants in four years. Repulsed by such barbarity, historians since Foxe have roundly condemned the reign of “Bloody Mary” and declared as abject failures her efforts to suppress heresy and reestablish Catholicism in England.

Carefully examining the available evidence, the distinguished historian Eamon Duffy argues against this prevailing consensus in Fires of Faith. He demonstrates that Mary’s Church effectively sought to reverse the religious revolution begun by Henry VIII and consolidated by the young Josiah, Edward VI. The Church reconstructed the physical settings for Catholic worship, supplied missals and liturgical manuals, organized a core group of trained clergy, and initiated a campaign of preaching and education. Cardinal Reginald Pole, long underestimated, presided over the Marian restoration, providing intellectual leadership, particularly in his De Unitate, as well as pragmatic governance. Pole explained, planned, appointed, preached, and organized. He implemented reforms associated with the Counter-Reformation, particularly the education of the clergy. He coordinated a massive instructional movement that included Bishop Edmund Bonner’s A Profitable and Necessary Doctrine, with its attached homilies, and the works of John Christopherson, John Procter, and the Harpsfield brothers, Nicholas and John.

And the burnings? “Any civilized twenty-first-century person,” Duffy writes, “will of course agree that burning men and women alive for their fidelity to deeply held beliefs must be both obviously and profoundly ‘the wrong weapon’ in a struggle for religious reconstruction.” But civilized early moderns, both Protestant and Catholic, Duffy shows, would not have so agreed. Thomas Cranmer, one of Mary’s most famous victims, had himself urged the burning of the Kentish Anabaptist Joan Butcher. John Foxe tried to persuade John Rogers to intercede on Joan Butcher’s behalf, if only to extend the dubious mercy of hanging, instead of burning, her. Rogers refused, defended burning for heresy, and ironically became the first one to go to the pyre in Mary’s reign. Moreover, Duffy demonstrates, Marian officials often shrank from the violence, struggled to convert recalcitrants, and sought loopholes for their release.

Still, the burnings baffle and appall the modern mind. And, finally, it does little good to note that Protestants killed dissenters, too, and that some Catholics lit the fires reluctantly. What were the early moderns thinking? Duffy’s book hints here and there at the underlying rationale and procedures but, regrettably, never articulates them clearly and forcefully, as for example, Alexandra Walsham does in Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500“1700 (2006). Ecclesiastical courts first determined whether or not someone was guilty of heresy, the rejection of an article of faith by a baptized member of the church. If convicted, the offender was catechized and, if obstinate, handed over to the secular courts for punishment.

A medieval civil statute, De haeretice comburendo (1401), stipulated that the punishment for heresy should be burning. The rationale was simple and Augustinian: Heresy misled its adherents to eternal damnation; the spread of heresy was, therefore, the worst evil that could befall a society. Heresy, moreover, endangered the body of the commonwealth as well as its soul. Striking at root principles of order and hierarchy, it encouraged sedition and insurrection. Responsible clergy and magistrates, consequently, were obliged to prosecute heresy vigorously and mercilessly. Such prosecution alone, they believed, could save their flocks and themselves from the misery of temporal anarchy and the hotter burning of hellfire for all eternity.

Duffy largely succeeds in his revisionist history of Catholic England under Mary Tudor. Dispelling some of the Foxean clouds that have obscured judgment, Fires of Faith reveals Marian reconstruction as a purposeful, ordered, and various movement. Duffy is less persuasive, however, in his claim that the burnings were, within their limits, successful. It is difficult to document the hearts and minds of a nation during so brief an interregnum; and the deaths of Mary Tudor and Reginald Pole on the same day, November 17, 1558, immediately ushered in a wave of counter reforms and the age of Protestant Elizabeth. Finally, this book leaves us with the sad realization that full-fledged advocates of toleration were scarce in the mid-sixteenth century”only Sebastian Castellio, who protested Calvin’s burning of Michael Servetus in 1553, and a handful of others. The world would have to wait.